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Another Idiot Lies About Alcohol

By Charles Olken

Let’s face it. No one in the wine industry likes a drunk. No one wants to meet an inebriated driver on the road. We all believe in moderation—encourage it, practice it, endorse it in every forum.

But when the anti-alcohol idiots get it wrong time and time again, it makes one wonder if they are deliberately crying “Wolf” or they just don’t have the brains to understand. Take the two headlines below appearing in widely read newspapers.

New Zealand Herald: “If you are struggling with a hangover tomorrow morning, it might not be entirely your own fault.”

The Telegraph (UK): “Winemakers willfully mislead consumers by changing the percentage of alcohol on bottle labels”.

These totally uninformed statements front the same article first appearing in The Telegraph on Christmas Day and then picked up half a world away in New Zealand. To make matters worse, or more laughable if you, like me, read the articles in question and realize how far-fetched (scientifically wrong) they are.

It all starts with an economics professor at the University of California, Davis (yes, Virginia, that “Davis”—the alma mater of so many of our best winemakers) in which some 100,000 wines were tested for accuracy of alcohol statements on wine labels. This topic has come in for research previously, and it is true that wine labels tend to understate the level of alcohol in wine. Professor Julian Alston led the study and found that wine labels, across his full study, showed a 0.42% understatement in alcohol level. That is to say, that a 13.5% label really means, on average, 13.92% alcohol by volume (ABV).

When we look at the variation, we come up with an understatement amounting to 3% of the total. And, that, dear readers, means that we are consuming about 3% more alcohol on average than the labels say we are. This may not be a laughing matter if it meant anything in reality, but it means so little as to be laughable, a scientific non-entity, a blip on the drunk-driving radar machine.

Here is why. Despite scary headlines that blame wine labels for your hangover, it is simply not true. If it takes you about a half bottle to reach the legally allowed limit of 0.08% blood alcohol, or to get a hangover, which ever measure is important to you, then the difference between the label and the truth amounts to about a third of an ounce of alcohol. But you have just consumed almost 13 ounces (about two and one half glasses) to reach that point.

It is a nonsense, indeed it is a lie, that the final one-third of an ounce did you in. Your head is either going to explode from the first 12 2/3rd ounces or it is not. It is you, not the wine label, that must take the blame for your hangover.

The same is true for those occurrences in which you might exceed the legal limit on blood alcohol when you want to drive your car. If the 3% uptick in real alcohol pushes you past 0.08% blood alcohol, you were going to be at 0.0776% to begin with. And if anyone is flirting with that level in the first place, that person should not be driving in any event.

Now, all of this junk science, for it is clearly not real science, is the fiction (mistake or lie, if you will) of Sarah Knapton, the so-called “Science Editor” of the Telegraph. Clearly, Ms. Knapton failed her “maths” tests in England and should not be allowed to use any form of calculator. But her abysmal failures do not end with her inability to do simple calculations of the type that my thirteen year-old granddaughter can do in her head.

Someone, who also cannot use a calculator, has concluded that one would need to drink 15% less wine in order to stay within the legal driving limits. Anyone with more than a fourth grade education should know that 15% less alcohol would lower one’s blood alcohol by 15%. But apparently not the hapless Ms. Knapton.

In truth, one would need to consume 3% less alcohol if labels understate by 3% of the total alcohol. And 3% of a half bottle is one-third of an ounce.

Ms. Knapton’s article engendered 169 comments from the British public starting with “Talk about making a mountain out of a mole hill” and continuing on with “0.4% in 13.6% is about 3%” and skewering Ms. Knapton with this awful truth, “Ms. Knapton is 0.4% of an effective Science Editor”.

Dear readers, it is not the wine label that is our enemy. It is not even math-incompetent science editors. We are our own enemies if we overconsume. On that we should all agree even as Ms. Knapton’s fake science does give us a small chuckle—as we hold her to account for the fact that she has no idea what she is talking about.

But lest you think that this is not a serious issue, I have, on previous occasions and do so here and now, call for wine labels to have smaller tolerances in the variations from the truth allowed. There really is no longer any reason why wine labels need allowed variances of up to 1.5% (that is 12 ½% could mean anything from 11% to 14%). Truth in labeling won’t prevent hangovers or even prevent drunk-driving. Only we can do that. But we are entitled to a closer approximation of the truth. The 0.42% variation in stated percentages is no big deal. Variations of 1.5% in real numbers does seem a little much even if most wine bottles do not come close to that kind of understatement.


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by Paul Wagner
Posted on:1/6/2016 9:21:35 AM

Go get 'em, Charlie.  Of course, the labeling laws here are all tied back to the Repeal of Prohibition tax laws....and have nothing to do with consumer protection of the lack thereof. 

Sad that our industry is still governed by laws aimed at issues that have failed to be important for fifty years...

Wrong Focus
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/6/2016 9:37:05 AM

It would be very refreshinjg, Paul, if we could focus on reality in these conversations instead of made-up and wholly misleading sensationalism as the Telegraph has done.

If the Telegraph article had dealt with the variance issue intelligently, it would have called for smaller variances in stated alcohol; it would have lambasted the rules that allow alcohol statements to be almost unreadable by using a print size so small that the human eye has trouble reading it and then allowing wineries to hide that info.

Let's be honest as the first order of business.

Whether we need ingredient labeling is beyond my ken, but I do not see how that requirement has held the food industry back. And we should probably do away with the difference in treatment of wines above and below 14% ABV. 

I called the Telegraph article "Junk science", but that was kind and probably too kind. The Telegraph article was wrong and wrong-headed on the facts.

Testing accuracy
by Ray Krause
Posted on:1/6/2016 9:58:19 AM

I'm wondering if Professor Julian Alston also factored in any standard abv testing deviation for all those 100,000 bottles?

BTW, who paid for this superflous exercise?

Nice piece, Charlie.
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/6/2016 10:16:00 AM


Likely the beleaguered taxpayers.

I want to know who drank the wine. I would hate to hear that 100,000 bottles were opened and then tossed down the drain. 

And thanks for the kind words, Ray. 

Holy crap, do we start the year in agreement?
by Blake Gray
Posted on:1/6/2016 11:19:58 AM

I think we do, Charlie, I think we do. I led with your last graph, but I think we're saying the same thing, only in different order.

by Bob Henry
Posted on:1/10/2016 3:18:26 AM

Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Op-Ed” Section

(January 31, 2010, Page A28):

“But Who’s Counting?;

The million-billion mistake is among the most common in journalism.”


By Doug Smith

Times Database Editor

The difference between a million and a billion is a number so vast that it  would seem nearly impossible to confuse the two.

. . .


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